In defence of the talking-animal movie

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Films like 'Zookeeper' give the talking animal genre a bad name, says David Jenkins and Adam Lee Davies

They arrive on our doorsteps as regularly as gas bills but are only a fraction as exciting. Yes, another week, another damn talking-animal movie. But, is the unalloyed idiocy of films like ‘Zookeeper’, in which that chaotic pile of a man Kevin James gets red-hot dating tips from his zoo charges, giving the talking-animal movie a bad rep? David Jenkins and Adam Lee Davies search for talking-animal gems in a heap of rapping-camel shit.

The penguin from ‘Fight Club’ (2000)
Back in the post-‘Easy Rider’, anything-goes early-’70s, high-flyin’ hippy seabird ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ had a whole live-action, feature-length movie to himself in which to rap about his vaguely delineated, half-baked, can-do flower-power guff. Fast-forward to 2000 and we hear Edward Norton’s cutesy CG penguin spirit guide espousing the same brand of acceptance and easy-going flexibility in one succinct word: ‘Slide!’



The fox from ‘Antichrist’ (2009)
It’s bizarre how accepting the denizens of Movieland usually are when animals start chatting at them. The reality is, if a dog started quoting Confucius at you (cf 2004’s ‘Karate Dog’), you’d probably swing at it with a tyre iron. Fear, then, is the key, and talking animals don’t get more scary than the rotting fox corpse in Lars von Trier’s ‘Antichrist’ who utters the ambiguous adage ‘Chaos reigns!’ through the same tremulous vocoder so beloved of arty Swiss electro-popsters Yello.



Nim from ‘Project Nim’ (2011)
The latest from director James Marsh (‘Man on Wire’) is the sort of talking-animal movie that Noam Chomsky might dig (though we hear he is partial to the occasional screening of ‘Racing Stripes’). It chronicles the attempts made by NYU research staff in the late ’70s to teach a chimp (named Nim) sign language. Though their attempts at inter-species communication are deemed a failure, they do manage to reach the little blighter on a purely emotional level.



Babe from ‘Babe’ (1995)
A class act in the talking-animal pantheon, simply because its makers didn’t think that hauling in a throng of B-listers with funny voices and having them yabber over some farmyard stock footage was enough. If anything, they make the job more difficult for themselves by waltzing into dual-personality terrain and having their lead character share the attributes of a pig and a sheepdog – something you’d never find in ‘Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Francisco’.



Blood from ‘A Boy and His Dog’ (1975)
The talking dog is usually a sign that the norms of well-scrubbed suburban domesticity have gone to hell. Madness and murder surround the chatty, mentally projected demon dog – voiced by John Turturro – in Spike Lee’s ‘Summer of Sam’, but they’ve gone nuclear for Don Johnson’s gossipy mutt Blood in LQ Jones’s crazed adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s post-apocalyptic novella. A true conversationalist, Blood’s as happy reciting bawdy limericks as he is holding forth on murder, cannibalism or necrophilia, and regularly has Johnson tied up in linguistic knots.



The tiger shaman from ‘Tropical Malady’ (2004)
He may be one of art cinema’s modern masters, but you can’t move for talking animals in the films of Thai dreamweaver Apichatpong Weerasethakul. If the red-eyed, cross-processed monkey ghosts of ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’ slip through on a technicality, the young soldier’s woodland stand-off with a talking tiger in eroto-horror reverie ‘Tropical Malady’ certainly doesn’t.



Don the horse from ‘Hot to Trot’ (1988)
And then there’s lost VHS treasure ‘Hot to Trot’. A superannuated ’80s retread of ‘Francis the Talking Mule’ (plot: a man who has a talking mule gets a job on a newspaper), this lunatic tale of a nattering nag who takes Wall Street by storm boasts John Candy’s downhome voicework as financial wiz and all-round chatterbox Don the Horse, which just about balances out Bobcat Goldthwait’s patented animalistic squawkings.



Author: David Jenkins & Adam Lee Davies



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